February’s Final Thursday Reading Series brings Rachel Morgan back to the stage. Morgan is Poetry Editor for the North American Review, and author of the chapbook Honey & Blood, Blood & Honey. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Alaska Quarterly Review, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), and Poetry South.
You’ve had a really productive streak of publications lately. Any pieces you’d like to single out? Any magic formula for getting published?
RACHEL MORGAN: I often think that getting work published is rain or shine; it happens all at once or not so much for a while. As a writer, I try to divide my time in thirds: a third to generate new material, a third to revise, and a third to submit and read the work of other poets. I do try to think about audience when sending a piece out to a literary magazine: who reads this magazine and what’s their aesthetic. I wrote a poem “Sequelae” which was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sure a prestigious publication, but publishing here might not mean so much to a poet trying to place a poem in Poetry. “Sequelae” struck out when I was sending it to traditional literary magazines. After it was rejected enough times, I sat with it and tried to figure out if it needed revising or if it hadn’t found the right home, and that’s when I recognized that all the medical jargon dominates the poem. Normally, I would revise a poem after a realization like that, but this poem felt central enough to its manuscript that I did minimal revisions and decided the poem was for a different audience: doctors and researchers who speak its language.
What are the kind of subjects or challenges that motivate your poetry?
RM: I’m motivated a lot by what I’m currently reading. My undergraduate mentor, Rick Jackson, talked a lot about writers “finding their voice,” and encouraged us to read and imitate writers we really admired. At the time, for me, those poets were James Wright and Elizabeth Bishop. When Rick talked about writers finding their voice, I naively understand this as arriving at an ending. Now I understand this as a journey where the destination is always changing. We take detours and day trips. This summer I read Ada Limón’s book The Carrying, and I got to the last poem and immediately opened the collection to the first poem and started reading again. I admired how she opened poems with specific times, the earnestness of each line, her humble, but brave “I.” I liked these things at this particular time because I felt these elements were missing from my current writing. I like to read poets who are doing things and writing in ways that I haven’t yet or can’t yet. I understand now that “finding your voice” is always about the horizon, as long as you keep moving, so does it.
I’m going to claim that the Rachelaissance began with Honey & Blood, Blood & Honey, since that was a Final Thursday Press chapbook. How does that book fit into your larger oeuvre (and, yes, I spelled that word wrong the first time)?
RM: Rachelaissance, flattering and probably too grand for my writing right now, but thanks. Honey & Blood, Blood & Honey is a “project book” based on the history of type 1 diabetes and the biography of Frederick Banting, inventor of insulin. I did a lot of research for this chapbook, but after it was published, I continued to write poems that are less centered on history and more narrative in nature. It’s also true that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Currently, I’m writing poems that aren’t associated with a project and experiment more with form and language.
You’ve served as Poetry Editor for the North American Review for a number of years now. How has been an editor affected you as a writer?
RM: I wish that being an editor and writer affected each other more than they do for me. These roles feel like parallel tributaries inching along and all the symbiosis happens below ground. Anyone who has served as an editor can tell you this job takes up an enormous amount of time, much time that otherwise might be used to write. As an editor, I read submissions looking for the poem that I haven’t read yet, paying attention to what’s new or intriguing—what I remember later that night while washing dishes and think about how the poet crafted the poem. I try to take this sense of wonder into my writing. I want to be brave, to take risks, to write what will surprise me, what I haven’t written yet.
Where is your writing headed? What can people look forward to hearing at your Final Thursday Reading Series reading?
RM: I’m currently working on a chapbook about living in Los Angeles, an experience that feels far from me now. And unlike the poems in my chapbook Honey & Blood, Blood & Honey, much of which I wrote while in the midst of an experience, this book is very much about hindsight, which can sometimes be oddly clairvoyant if we’re paying attention.
—Interview conducted by Jim O’Loughlin